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Zoo Tycoon 2

(Microsoft; US: Jul 2007)

All is Not Well in Eden

“And God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.’”
—Genesis 1:26


I remember that weird feeling I had the first time that I drew a landscape up out of the watery void of Peter Molyneaux’s now classic Populous. I had suddenly made “a firmament in the midst of the waters” that would “divide the waters from the waters” (Genesis 1:6), and it was good. And I was a little terrified.


The one thing godgames, as some have come to call the various third-person omniscient simulation games—be they dominantly economic simulations, civilizing simulations, warfare simulations, or some combination of these subgenres—have in common with one another is this theme of playing god. Zoo Tycoon 2 is no different in its basic approach with the aforementioned viewpoint of looking down on a world that you can bend, manipulate, and create, using a bodiless hand to interact with the environment and its populations—both human and animal.


In this sense Zoo Tycoon 2 offers similar satisfactions and frustrations of the genre and maybe empathy for the satisfactions and frustrations of being God for an afternoon. There is a satisfaction in wielding power by dominating and controlling an environment and planning a purpose for it of your own design. Seeing that long term plan come together as you build a prosperous zoo, satisfy your customers, and raise and breed your animals successfully is rewarding. It is good.


What is bad, though, or, at the very least, frustrating, is dealing with the hiccups and seemingly random chaos of the world itself. Let’s face it: you built it, but your “subjects” have been “blessed” with (artificial) freewill and in those moments you fully understand why God sees that the light is good and the land is good but in the Genesis story he seems hesitant to make those clear consistent judgments about all those pesky human beings and animals who just don’t seem to “get” the big picture. Those critters always seem to do what they want to do and get sick when you don’t want them to and get angry and want more amusing attractions from you despite and at the expense of your own grand design.


What Zoo Tycoon 2 seems to offer in addition to this sympathetic and empathetic understanding of the joys and pains of godlike creation and that most sims of this sort seem to offer is an additional sense of the mythological underpinnings of our Western culture, so often obsessed with conserving and maintaining species and environments despite our knowledge of evolution and its more competitive approach to the natural world. This obsession to take care of the animals is buried deeply in our psyches but can be located in passages like the epigraph above, in which, our most fundamental mythology instructs us of the relationship between God and man and animals. We are like God, similar in that we are given domination and responsibility over these creatures somewhat inferior to ourselves, but different in that we have to follow his goals and plans.


Zoo Tycoon 2 acknowledges this likeness and the religiously-based hierarchy of living creatures so intrinsic to Western thought by allowing a new feature not available in previous iterations of the game, you can take a step down the food chain and play man, too. You can come out of the sky and take a ground’s eye view of your creation, give up some of your omnipotence to become a lowly zookeeper of your own. This, too, has its own satisfactions and frustrations.


While you can play the good groundskeeper and help keep the park clean, sweep up animal feces, restock food and supplies for the animals, and administer medicine to ailing animals—things not available from your observational position in the skies, you also realize the frustrations of the Edenic state, it sometimes can get a touch boring just maintaining somebody else’s garden.


In particular, the new camera feature, in which, to meet the goals of some zookeeping scenarios, you have to photograph animals demonstrating certain behaviors (grooming each other or using a scratching post) can get downright tedious and make you want to just bite the apple and get the hell out of paradise.


I can think of few things more boring than waiting for a Zebra to bother to scratch himself just to move on with my grand designs for marketing my zoo, but then again I don’t like fishing or bird watching either and the idea of a video game simulation that captures the fun of such waiting games makes me shiver in abject horror.


While Zoo Tycoon 2 should offer fans of the genre what they crave—a sense of power and accomplishment in developing a world of their own and dealing with and circumventing that nasty free will that complicates games of this sort. Others may want to look to their more human instincts and revel in the more corrupt free form sandboxes and better developed interactive “ground view environments” still on their way this year, like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, where you still get to concern yourself with freewill but not sweat all those responsibilities heaped on us back before we ate that apple.

G. Christopher Williams is a Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He posts his weekly contribution to the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters every Wednesday. Besides also serving as Multimedia Editor at PopMatters and writing at his own blog, 8-bit confessional, he has also published essays in journals like Film Criticism, PostScript, and the Popular Culture Review. You won't find him on Twitter, but you can drop him a line with that old fashioned thing called e-mail at williams@popmatters.com.


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